A splendid isolation up against the wall

Times Staff Writer

When Ross Cortese, the visionary developer of Leisure World, built the postwar suburban enclave of Rossmoor he presaged the rise of the gated community by encircling much of his 3,500-home tract with a brick wall.

In the half-century since, that “signature wall,” as residents of the leafy, Ozzie-and-Harriet island of tranquillity refer to it, has served as a not-so-subtle message to cities that have repeatedly tried to swallow Rossmoor through annexation: Keep out.

“Rossmoor has a self-perception of being a very exclusive residential community that’s better than our neighbors,” said Eric Christensen, president of the Rossmoor Homeowners Assn. “Our neighbors get pretty annoyed at that.”

Nestled between the San Diego and San Gabriel River freeways in northwestern Orange County, Rossmoor has a history of geographic split personality. When its homes were springing up in the late 1950s, the place was promoted as a subdivision of Los Alamitos -- and later as Long Beach’s spiffy new suburb. Today, Rossmoor has a Los Alamitos mailing address, while the Shops at Rossmoor and the Rossmoor/Los Alamitos branch library are in Seal Beach.


Now, with the county pushing to shed responsibility for providing municipal services to unincorporated areas, Rossmoor finds itself at a crossroads. Does it want to become part of Los Alamitos? Try to join Seal Beach? Should it incorporate? Expand the powers of its current community services district? Or become part of a “super city” blending all three communities into a municipal smoothie, as county Supervisor John Moorlach has proposed?

Each option has its pros and cons when it comes to bottom-line issues of taxes and services, in particular Rossmoor residents’ concerns over comparatively slow Sheriff’s Department response times, cuts in county code enforcement and a sluggish building permit process.

But as Rossmoor turns 50 amid a renovation and construction boom that’s transforming it into a neighborhood of mini-mansions, the community’s self-image becomes equally important.

A survey of residents last year found no consensus among the options, although 53% preferred some form of local control rather than annexation. But the nuances of the choices come out in comments returned with the surveys:

Being part of a beach community would have more prestige ...

Stay away from SB, they ruin everything!

Look at the map. We are next to and naturally associated with Los Al.

I love Rossmoor as it is now.


Like any place that considers itself special -- the wall, no stop lights or through traffic, no apartments, lots of mature trees -- Rossmoor has always been protective of its identity. A couple of annexation attempts by Los Alamitos in the 1960s caused residents to close ranks. When Seal Beach later annexed the Rossmoor Business Center -- and its tax base -- the incursion fostered bitter feelings.

“We hate Seal Beach. They stole our shopping center,” said Dee Nilsen, who has lived in Rossmoor for 31 of her 58 years. More recently, the city allowed a retail strip to be built across from one of Rossmoor’s entrances. Nilsen and others have boycotted the strip because of the increase in traffic.

Nilsen also doesn’t care for the strip malls, apartment buildings and urban feel that define parts of Los Alamitos -- a common refrain along the homogeneous streets of Rossmoor.

“I hate Los Alamitos,” said Nilsen, who prefers that Rossmoor govern itself. “It’s a hodgepodge of nothing.”


“I think most people don’t fully understand all the options,” said Joe Woodman, 62, a 38-year resident and retired physical education teacher for the Los Alamitos Unified School District. Woodman said he would prefer autonomy to annexation, but thinks Rossmoor has more in common with Los Alamitos than Seal Beach. “That’s where our kids go to school, and the school district is what defines this community,” he said.

Excellent schools have been one of Rossmoor’s biggest draws, a reason why a teardown can cost $800,000 or more.

But to Shirley Bailey, Rossmoor’s history of self-reliance is what has most shaped the community and is the best argument for self-government. When two unused school sites became available, residents voted to tax themselves to turn them into parks. After an earthquake damaged Rossmoor’s wall, residents taxed themselves to repair and retrofit the entire thing.

“I hate to see a change occur. I’m such a believer in the homeowners association,” said Bailey, 67, who prefers to see an expanded community service district. “But if it were to occur, I’d rather become part of Seal Beach. The name ‘beach’ brings ... prestige with it.”


Seal Beach has said it’s not interested in considering annexation; Los Alamitos is neutral on the subject.

The Rossmoor Planning Committee, charged with sifting through the options, decided recently to circulate a petition seeking cityhood, said Christensen, the homeowners association’s president. Any proposal would require a review, an election and approval by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission.

“Life in Rossmoor has been very good,” Christensen said. “But if we don’t do something now, somebody’s going to do something for us at some point.”